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“Take Off to Comedy IX”: Jackie Mason’s colossal Broadway hit, “The Word According to Me!”
Jackie Mason has probably enjoyed more success on Broadway than any other stand-up comedian, and today he is still known for his many popular one-man shows, including his colossal hit The World According to Me!, which was filmed for broadcast on HBO. Excerpts from it were featured in our “Take Off to Comedy IX” special, which originally aired on October 15, 1988, and you can now see it streaming exclusively on Night Flight Plus.
Mason — described by one writer as looking “like the offspring of Edward G. Robinson and Joe Papp, with his flat face, large lips, hooded eyes, and modified Afro” — was born “Yacov Moshe Maza” on June 9, 1931, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the fourth and last son (first born in the U.S.) in a family of six children, raised as “Jacob” (then Jackie) in a strictly orthodox Jewish family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
As a teenager, Mason worked as a busboy at in the so-called “Borscht Belt” summer resorts in New York’s Catskill mountains, where he certainly must have first been exposed to a slew of great Jewish stand-up comedians, sometimes moonlighting as an opening comic at the Pearl Lake Hotel.
His father Eli was a rabbi, however, and after first earning a BA degree at City College of New York (double majoring in English and Sociology), Mason followed in his father’s footsteps — not only his father, but his great-great grandfather, great-grandfather and grandfather too —first becoming a cantor, at age eighteen, before being ordained as a rabbi seven years later (just as three of his brothers had also been). He ultimately led his own congregations in synagogues in Weldon, North Carolina and in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Three years after his father died, Mason resigned his job as a rabbi and he turned to stand-up comedy in mid-1950s, which surely has to be one of the more remarkable “second acts” of 20th Century Americans.
By the early 1960s, Mason was a regular on TV variety shows, beginning with his first national TV appearance on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1962, and including appearances on “The Dean Martin Show” among many others:
Then, two years later, on October 18, 1964, and just prior to his appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — a hugely popular variety TV program, reaching forty million Americans every Sunday night during the golden age of live TV — Mason was told by the show’s producers that part of the show that night was being pre-empted by all the major networks, including CBS.
The reason? The Soviet Union had recently and suddenly replaced Nikita Khrushchev as their prime minister and the People’s Republic of China had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, and because of this, then-president Lyndon B. Johnson was going to appear on television that night during prime-time programming in order to give an overview of America’s foreign policy.
As a result of the pre-emption, all of the guests on the show were told to set aside any political jokes they’d planned to tell, and Mason was told this specifically as he was going to be the show’s first guest right after Johnson’s on-air appearance.
Mason had one joke in particular — poking fun at Johnson’s wife and daughter, Lady Bird and Luci Bird, respectively, saying that “we have government that’s for the birds”) — which he was told wouldn’t be appropriate on that particular night.
Mason also regularly told jokes about Johnson’s landslide win over his Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and like many today, he had little to no respect for the legislative branch of government either (he might have been an early proponent of demanding term limits because he joked “Congress… gets paid whether the country makes money or not… I say put them on commission”).
To make sure the show would end on time and fit the allotted time slot that evening, Ed Sullivan himself stood beside the camera during the taping, to the side of the show’s live audience, in order to hold up two fingers in order to show the comedian onstage that he had two minutes left in his comedy routine.
However, Mason got distracted by seeing Sullivan doing this and he reacted by holding up a thumb and finger on one hand back at Sullivan, on camera, mimicking what Sullivan was doing to him, but Sullivan incorrectly believed Mason was giving him the finger live on air.
Sullivan was infuriated by what he thought he’d seen, and subsequently banned Mason from appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” thereafter, and since Sullivan was considered TV’s arbiter of good taste at the time, this meant that other TV shows also banned Mason from appearing, believing that he might gesture obscenely on their TV show as well.
Mason filed a libel suit on the grounds that Sullivan had defamed him and he won a victory against the TV star in June 1966, but he remained banned from the show for a long period.
Sullivan later apologized to Mason when he was told he misunderstood Mason’s one-finger hand gesture, and Mason did actually appear again on the show two years later, but the actual result of the ban caused Mason to be branded as unreliable, volatile, and possibly obscene, and his career — at least when it came to appearances on TV — stalled for nearly two decades before he was able to regain his reputation.
He continued to perform comedy, of course, and instead of making regular TV appearances as most comics were doing, he played the casino circuit, where he was making as much as $10,000 a night.
Rather than relying on gag writers (including Rodney Dangerfield, who supplied him with jokes which Mason says he paid for but never used), Mason was noted for writing his own material, which mostly consisted of whatever was on his mind at the time.
Mason’s one-man show — featuring what one reviewer called his “killer commentaries on life and everything that’s humorous and strange about it” — covered a lot of topics of the kind of material that tended to play particularly well in the Catskills, like jokes about Hollywood, hookers, Gentiles and Jews, but he also joked with equal vehemence about liberals, feminists, humanitarians, health food faddists, blacks, Puerto Ricans, the French and lots of other topics which today would not be considered very politically-correct.
Mason had his difficulties, however, when it came to getting the financial backing to star in movies or plays — in 1969, a Broadway play he co-wrote with Mike Mortman) and starred in (as “Nat Weiss”), called A Teaspoon Every Four Hours, closed after just one official performance, but not before it played for a then record-breaking ninety-seven preview shows.
In 1972, a movie he starred in, The Stoolie, bombed at the box office — which he later recalled with great resentment in his 1988 autobiography Jackie, Oy!: Jackie Mason from Birth to Rebirth.
A few years before the publication of the book, however, Mason was finally back on Broadway (after a mere seventeen years) with a hugely successful one-man show called The World According to Me!.
Mason first performed the show — which combines lethal political satire with his own unique observations about everyday life — for L.A. audiences for six weeks before it moved to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre in NYC, where it played thereafter of full capacity audiences, beginning on December 22, 1986, running for 367 consecutive sold-out performances.
“It took twenty years,” he once said of the lengthy ordeal of being banned by Ed Sullivan, which arguably made him unforgettably famous, “to overcome what happened in one minute.”
The show — which would earn Mason a Special Tony Award, an Outer Circle Award, an Ace Award, an Emmy, and a Grammy nomination, in addition to making Mason a millionaire — won him critical raves, including praise from difficult drama critic Frank Rich of the New York Times, who told his loyal readers, “the huge audience goes wild for this man because, in addition to his talent, he gives theatergoers something they’re not used to finding on the Broadway stage: the truth.”
The World According to Me! was also staged in London, too, where one of the dozen or so performances was seen by Elizabeth II herself, who Mason later joked had soon began “talking like me.”
The Broadway show revised interst in Mason’s successful night club act too, which included ad libs, insults, and especially political targets. For awhile, most of his jokes were about Republicans, but after awhile, he lashed out at Democrats with equal vitriol. Mason went after local New York political figures (David Dinkins, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani) as often as he did national politicians (like George Bush and Dan Quayle in the early 90s) and international ones too (Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, in particular).
One of his regular targets during the late 70s and in the 1980s, in particular, was former president Richard Nixon, post-Watergate, joking about Tricky Dick, “I love a crook who knows his business… every week they caught him and every week somebody else went to jail,” and later diagnosing Nixon’s post-White House illness as syphilis, because “you can’t screw two hundred million people and get phlebitis.”
Another political target in the 1980s and beyond was president Ronald Reagan, about whom he said, (“A great president, it just so happens this is not his field.”).
He also did a passable impression of Reagan, and he did many other impressions onstage: politician Ted Kennedy, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, TV show host Ed Sullivan, director Alfred Hitchcock, actors James Cagney and Sylvester Stallone, and singers Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Mason would revive The World According to Me! on May 2, 1988, and the popular one-man show was still on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater — lasting for another six months, approximately 203 more shows — when he filmed a hour-long TV movie version in 1988 for HBO.